Alumna Pens Award-Winning Book Uncovering Politics Behind Flint Water Crisis

By Tom McLaughlin

As a Rutgers University–Camden doctoral student, Ashley Nickels once described herself as an “activist scholar.”

She was intent on learning the dynamics of local democracy while collaborating with members of the Flint, Mich. community. It was always with the goal of community betterment in mind, said the 2016 graduate of the Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. in public affairs program.

“I want my research to be meaningful,” said Nickels, now an associate professor of political science at Kent State University. “I am fulfilling the responsibilities of a rigorous research project, but I am listening to what community members want out of the process.”

It is this balanced approach – research coupled with action – that is now at the heart of Nickels’ new award-winning book, Power, Participation, and Protest in Flint, Michigan: Unlocking the Policy Paradox of Municipal Takeovers (Temple University Press).

The book, which earned the prestigious Robert Dahl Award from the American Political Science Association and the Best Book Award from the Democracy and Social Justice Section of American Society for Public Administration, explores Flint’s altered political system in the wake of the city’s 2002 and 2011 municipal takeovers. The latter intervention led to the infamous Flint water crisis, a public health emergency that made national headlines.

The crisis began in 2014 when Flint changed its public water source from Detroit’s water system to the nearby Huron River. The more corrosive water of the Huron wasn’t treated properly, allowing toxic lead from the city’s aging pipes to leach into the water supply. It would be a year and half before the city would switch back to the Detroit water system, compromising the health of thousands of residents.

Nickels recalls that she had become increasingly interested in understanding dynamics of local democracy shortly after arriving at Rutgers–Camden in 2011.

In light of this disaster, Nickels – a Michigan native – sought to uncover the story behind the story. She wanted to know just how a collective of largely unelected officials could assume the power to make impactful decisions, imperiling the lives of residents in the process.

She recalls that she had become increasingly interested in understanding these dynamics shortly after arriving at Rutgers–Camden in 2011. At that time, the State of Michigan had revised the law to allow state intervention in local government affairs for cities facing fiscal emergencies. Meanwhile, the City of Camden was just emerging from its own municipal takeover. She soon focused her attention on the unexplored territory of these measures – and the increasingly polarized groups who either supported or opposed them.

“One on hand, there is a group who is saying that such an intervention is essential; they need it to save the city,” says Nickels, who has authored or coauthored five books. “On the other, a group is saying that it’s egregious; these state takeovers are superseding the powers of their local elected officials.”

One of Nickels’ primary concerns was that these interventions often take place in fiscally distressed small- and mid-sized cities where there is low voter turnout. Camden and Flint are not unlike each other, she says, in that local officials could be elected with only a few hundred votes cast. These interventions then enable elected officials’ roles to be diminished in favor of unelected community leaders elevated to more prominent roles.

“I wanted to dig a little deeper and think about how these policies, as they are being implemented, really shaped whose voices, ideas, and values were made central, and whose voices, values, and ideas were minimized in the process,” says Nickels, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master of public administration from Grand Valley State University.

The Rutgers–Camden alumna posits that her book can inform academic debate, as well as public policies aimed at addressing fiscal, physical, and structural deficits that cities face.

Zeroing in on Flint’s 2011 takeover, Nickels arrived at three key takeaways. First, she discovered how the policy distributed benefits disproportionately to the “development regime” – a term borrowed from Richard Harris, a former professor of hers in Rutgers–Camden’s Ph.D. program.

Nickels explains that this collective in Flint was comprised of representatives from local entities, notably the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Flint Genesee Chamber of Commerce, and other high-capacity nonprofit organizations.

“These individuals were given advisory roles and significant power in the city, and they benefited from that access,” says Nickels, who adds that, although these individuals may have had the best interest of the city at heart, their own values errantly served as the framework for how the city should be repaired.

Conversely, she says, the intervention also saddled local citizens with disproportionate burdens. Some city employees lost their jobs due to restructuring. Moreover, residents saw an increase of fees for basic services such as public water, which then proved to be a significant public health burden as well.

“The decisions to switch the water source and not to use corrosion control were made under emergency management,” says Nickels, who cohosts the “Growing Democracy” podcast. “To say that it also became a public health burden is an understatement.”

Nickels describes herself as an “activist scholar,” focusing on research coupled with action.

The Rutgers–Camden alumna also looked at what she referred to as “interpretive effects”: the way that supporters or opponents of the policy perceived it, as well as a “middle ground of people,” who believed that something needed to be done, but were uncomfortable with the policy.

She adds that the Flint case study also shows the alternative approaches that community organizations and activists took to make their voices heard when traditional pathways of engagement were cut off. These approaches included organizing coalitions and political protests.

Throughout the book, Nickels argues that, while some policymakers might support such short-term fixes to solve budgetary issues, the Flint case showed that there are long-term consequences for not having meaningful deliberation on such policies – and ultimately a lasting, negative impact on local democracy.

“The water crisis is a prime example,” she says. “It is indicative of how severe problems can happen if you are focused solely on one narrow, technical element.”

Nickels posits that the book, written in “accessible” language, can inform academic debate, as well as public policies aimed at addressing fiscal, physical, and structural deficits that cities face.

“We need to focus on how a city is functioning and bringing in revenue, and the budgetary elements of our decisions,” she says, “but also consider how these decisions are being experienced and perceived by people living in that space.”

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